September 05, 2023
Let's hear it!
Final Auditions for The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center make for an exhilarating day.
The Final Auditions for Ensemble singer positions in The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center take place every year, but their recurring nature does nothing to diminish the intensity of the occasion. One by one, over the course of six hours, emerging talents from around the globe take the Lyric Opera stage, hoping their performance will earn an invitation to join one of the finest artist-development programs in the world. The audience is made up of Lyric's expert judging panel — and an enthusiastic audience of patrons and operaphiles of all sorts.
Success is the result of many factors — but what happens under the lights is paramount. "What we're really looking for is extraordinary talent that needs to be nurtured," says Julia Faulkner, the program's Director of Vocal Studies. The specific number that the program will take on, she adds, "is not predetermined. We generally aim for 12 singers in the Ensemble, which would include two of each voice type — soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, bass — plus two additional artists. But where we land is guided by the talent and the potential we hear and see."
The focus on talent is not the only exceptional aspect of the Final Auditions: No matter where they're coming from, each participant's trip to Chicago is provided by the Ryan Opera Center, including travel and lodging, thanks to generous sponsors and American Airlines, Lyric's Official Airline. Typically the singers (and also candidates for the new positions of conductor/pianist, stage director, and stage manager, whose audition process takes place separately) fly in for a three- or four-day stay, during which they meet and interview with Ryan Opera Center staff and receive coaching sessions to prepare for their audition. With 15 or 20 candidates arriving to audition in any given year, the expenses are considerable.
Covering the auditioning artists' costs is simply the right thing to do, says Lyric General Director, President & CEO Anthony Freud. "I've sat on many competition juries over the years, and some of them not only do not cover the expenses of the singers who enter, but even in certain cases singers have to pay to enter," Freud notes. "And that, to me, is completely wrong. If competitors aren't fully reimbursed, how can we talk about inclusivity? It's incredibly important that a commitment to inclusivity includes affordability."
Inclusivity and access are key components of the audition process from the very start, says Dan Novak, the Center's Director. Every January, in a wide variety of traditional ways, the Ryan Opera Center announces that singer applications may be submitted. Numerous outlets publicize the opportunity, but Lyric makes it a point to supplement those conventional efforts.
"We want the process to be as absolutely open and accessible as possible," Novak says. "Applying is free of charge, and we send marketing materials to universities and schools where there are historically diverse student bodies. In the group of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, for instance, there are 23 music programs to which we send the audition announcement, encouraging their students to apply."
Improvements in video technology have expanded the pool of applicants to a global scale. In any given year, the Ryan Opera Center will review somewhere between 400 and 500 videos. "We listen to all applicants and determine who advances to a preliminary live audition," Novak says. "That narrows the number down to somewhere between 150 to 200 singers, whom we hear in New York City and in Chicago over the course of the spring and summer."
As large-scale as all that sounds, it actually represents only one facet of how the Ryan Opera Center finds talent. Everyone in Lyric's artistic leadership is keeping an ear out for stars on the rise, wherever their work takes them — to universities, performances, and festivals all over the world. That's the ongoing, less formal part of the company's outreach efforts, which Novak refers to simply as "recruitment."
"I curated a big concert in Santa Barbara last summer, with about 25 really gifted singers," says Craig Terry, the Ryan Opera Center's Music Director. "There was one very young singer there who had a real spark and was able to deliver something that wowed everyone. So we invited her to the Finals. Giving her the chance to walk through the door and see what she can do right now was a huge opportunity."
Freud recently referred to the auditions as "the annual excitement." It's an experience that first became available to an audience nine years ago, thanks to a sponsorship by the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation. This year's Lead Sponsor is Philip G. Lumpkin. "Subscribers, donors, patron groups, ticket buyers, and students attend, many for the entire six hours — a major commitment of time," Novak says. "It's much nicer for the singers to have an audience who support them with their applause and energy — and it's a wonderful opportunity for the Lyric family to learn more about the Ryan Opera Center."
After the singing, the judging panel — composed of Lyric's top artistic administrators, including Music Director Enrique Mazzola — convenes for an intense final session. Once decisions are made, the singers learn the results (including the prize for audience favorite), and those selected sign their contracts, right on the spot. (It's not uncommon for those who don't make it to return at a future date.)
"Watching the talent on the stage, the possibilities are endless. And it's always tremendous fun. It makes our blood pressure go up, but it also opens our hearts," says Terry. "Because that's what this career is, what the job is — what is, for all of us, the reason that we're here doing what we do. We want to find artists who can deliver when the pressure is on — who have the ability to connect. Singers who can stand in front of the audience and light it up."